Mental health: Why we need to cut students some slack

Given the Covid uncertainty, it's no surprise students are catastrophising – we need to support them, says David Murray

David Murray

Covid and mental health: Why FE college students need teachers' support

I recently had a boiler crisis and a medical scare in the same week. When the heating engineer came to fix the boiler (at a weekend, prime time, emergency rates applying), the problem was resolved with a simple turn of a screw. The kettle hadn’t even finished boiling by the time he was done. I literally had a screw loose. That was all.

As for the health scare, it turned out to be nothing. In fact, even less than nothing. Just the normal signs of life when you’re a middle-aged man. Think of that panda in the video when its baby suddenly sneezes. It was that level of serious scare.   

However, in the few hours I had to wait for an engineer to come, I was already calculating how on earth I could ever afford a new boiler. I was starting to consider a life of crime. Or sending my teenage son up some chimneys. 

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Similarly, in the hours before I saw a doctor, my mind again went on its own little tour. It ventured everywhere into the future I foresaw I would never experience. I imagined the way the worst news would be broken to me. Even the doctor would be choking on his words, I was sure. I pictured sitting my children down to tell them what was happening, and how they’d struggle to keep a stiff upper lip. I could hear the stories they would one day tell their own children of their dear old dad and his courageous but early demise. I imagined John Keats’ grave in Rome: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Maybe they’d lay me beside him. I could hear the cries of the crowds in the country’s streets as the cortege passed by on its international tour. They’d probably need a full-on national holiday to get over me. News crews would definitely be involved. And more practically, perhaps, I wondered if my pension might pay out prematurely. 

Covid and mental health: College students catastrophising

In both cases, life returned to its beautiful dull normality within no time at all. Still, without my conscious permission, my mind had reeled off in absolutely absurd directions: I catastrophised. Even as I was bumbling through my normal routines on the outside, I was already inhabiting a disastrous near future within. Even though it was spring, the birds were singing and lockdown was lifting, inside I imagined I was barely alive. In my mind, I was languishing on a sweat-drenched sickbed already. Thankfully, things were resolved swiftly, and it was the quick resolution that saved me from my own mind.

Currently, I suspect many of our students are fast-spinning balls of catastrophising chaos. They may not show it so obviously but it is clear in the questions they ask in class, in the worries they express when they email me, in the general level of serious application they show to their work. And it is also whispered in the emails their mums send in confidence. 

For some of these students, the worst is already underway in their minds: this year’s grading process is going to mess up their future, they won’t get to university, the job they have dreamt of forever will slip from their reach, the life they had hoped for will be gone. And soon they’ll be steaming up the windows of life’s restaurant from outside, as their more fortunate peers feast within. The next step must surely be selling a kidney and seeking out a doorway. And all of this is happening in their minds right now, even as they sit in the class quietly and take notes.

For some of them, the most catastrophic outcome is already becoming their present lived reality, even though they are actually in a cohort that may well see the most dramatic grade inflation of all time. It is highly unlikely that the worst will come to pass for them. Highly unlikely. But catastrophes do happen. They have already happened; we’ve all been through one recently. So who knows? And a slim chance is all that a worried mind needs.  

So it is really no wonder if our students’ anxiety levels are so high right now. Of course, there are many other serious causes to the current mental health crisis. But, when it comes to the grading process this year, it is clear that students may have felt they were trying to navigate in a land with no signs and only one set of dusty footprints to be found. 

And, unfortunately, for a long time since exams were cancelled, we have ourselves been uncertain guides. When you’re going through a desert, a supposedly reassuring “I’m sure we should be going this way…” simply isn’t going to cut it. Even now that Ofqual has put up the road signs to show us all the way, students who have been trained their whole lives to sit tests will be thrown. We are asking a lot when we tell students they have to trust us. Especially when we ourselves are not sure who to trust. And some of them can feel a bit lost. 

There are many, many heroes in the educational world but I would humbly suggest that from now on grand palanquins be provided to transport all our college counsellors, mental health workers, safeguarding officers, personal tutors and mentors.

As wizened old classroom lags, sometimes we may be cynical about the reality of anxiety in our students’ lives. “It wasn’t like this in my day,” we might fight to prevent ourselves saying. Or “Try a day in my life…” But my recent mindflips reminded me: it really doesn’t matter if the sun is out and the flowers are starting to bloom when our thoughts have raced ahead of our reality. Our students will need time to catch up with themselves this year. That may take a while. These are extraordinary days. And we need to recognise that extraordinary days can lead to people behaving in uncharacteristic ways. 

So we have to cut our students some slack. They still have hoops they have to jump through. We all do. But I believe our students will bounce back. Snowflakes? No. Let’s stand back and watch them go. Pretty soon they’ll be changing the world. Because that’s what our students inevitably go on to do.

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

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